Environmental History 
of the Spokane River


The riverfront in Spokane was a hotbed of industrial activity from the late 1800's through the late 1960's. The riverfront attracted many businesses, but none more visible and dominant than the railroads. The railroads led to a boom in population from a few hundred people to one of the largest cities in Washington. Many businesses flourished due to the accessibility of transporting goods and people along the railways. However, after WWII, people wanted cities to have consumer friendly shops and spaces. Downtown Spokane had become so industrialized with warehouses and railroads, people found it to be an undesirable area to visit and shop. The railroads and depots around what is now Riverfront Park were contributing to urban decay in Spokane and creating a virtually unusable river. Residents in Spokane began to take notice over how polluted the river had become.

Spokane resident and historian Michael Green gave a statement about the Spokane River, saying, “It was an open sewer. There’s no other way to describe it. We flushed our toilets…right into the river. The out-falls of all the slaughtering plants, all the commercial establishments, diesel fuel, the machine shops, all that stuff went into the open sewers and right into the river” (Stratton). Spokane resident Vicki McNeill remembered that you could hardly see the river because of the trestles (Youngs).

Timeline of big railroad events in Spokane:

1881- First Northern Pacific passenger train arrives in Spokane on June 25th.

1883- Northern Pacific transcontinental line completed in Montana, linking Spokane with the East Coast.

1890- Union Pacific service to Spokane.

1892- Great Northern completed to compete with NP, but in 1893 NP went bankrupt and GN bought NP in 1895.

1970- Burlington Northern merger- NP, GN, Spokane, Portland & Seattle, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy merge.


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